CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BOTH
Sometimes it just happens that your apparently random rental queue throws up complementary films. Maybe it's deliberate - a few years ago they sent me half a dozen Charles Bronson films in quick succession, from a list heaving with non-Bronson titles - but I'd guess it's pure chance that two movies examining the post-Vietnam American psyche within the context of commercial action cinema (even typing these phrases makes me feel so absurdly Sight And Sound that I should be wearing a beret or something) have landed in my postbox within days of each other.
Of the two, John Flynn's Rolling Thunder (1977) is probably less well-known than Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982); it had no sequels, it didn't have a screen icon in the lead role (William Devane vs Sylvester Stallone) and, at least in the UK, it's never been as widely seen (the present DVD and Blu release is its first exposure since its 1987 VHS outing). And, next to First Blood, it's perhaps very slightly the lesser of the two. That's not to suggest that Rolling Thunder isn't an impressive, very well made and enjoyable film, but I think the Stallone just nudges ahead. I hadn't seen First Blood in about 20 years and was genuinely surprised at how much I couldn't remember, given how good it was.
Both movies deal with returning veterans: Charles Rane (William Devane) arrives to a hero's welcome in Texas after seven years' incarceration; John Rambo (Stallone) visits a small town in Washington State and is treated as a vagrant and drifter. Neither man wants to go back to a life of violence but are forced to by circumstance and disrespect: Rambo treated as a common criminal by redneck idiots, Rane's family murdered by hoodlums (led by James Best, who's probably most familiar, perhaps unfortunately, as a dimwit cop on The Dukes Of Hazzard). While Rambo takes to the hills and uses his Green Beret survival and combat training against the countless clueless hicks led by the bigoted sheriff (Brian Dennehy), Rane quietly tracks down the killers to exact a brutal revenge on them.
Although First Blood is the more commercial of the two, it's the less viscerally violent and while there's plenty of action, it only has a body count of three: one particularly despicable cop shooting at our hero from a helicopter and two in a car during a brief chase with an army truck (and we don't actually see those two killed). While it's true that in the (increasingly silly) sequels John Rambo leaves hundreds of corpses strewn all across the globe, he's emphatically not a killer here except in those two clear instances of self defence. Indeed the film only has a 15, which it would get for its modest use of the F-word anyway: Rolling Thunder's numerous shotgun blasts ensure it's still an 18 certificate. Strangely, given that I liked First Blood for its terrific action sequences, I liked Rolling Thunder more for its quiet drama in the first half hour than its own action material, as Devane adjusts to civilian life as something of a minor celebrity with his wife and son.
First Blood's weakest moment is probably towards the end when Rambo breaks down into a sobbing, broken man: hated for wearing the same flag that all the police officers wear, labelled a "baby killer" by antiwar protesters, unable to hold down a job, with nothing left in his life. This is really the key scene in the movie but it's rather lost in Stallone's incomprehensible crying and mumbling: I played the scene twice but eventually had to look at the quotes on the film's IMDb page for the sense of it. He didn't want to kill any more: he went out of his way not to kill those who were pointlessly antagonising him. Meanwhile Rane had no problems in that regard, as the second half of Rolling Thunder basically turns into a Death Wish movie, firstly with a self-described "war hero groupie" (Linda Haynes) and subsequently with his army comrade (Tommy Lee Jones) who seems only too eager to get back into uniform.
Both movies are well worth catching, both are solidly well done and both are nicely entertaining. I think I like First Blood more for its action, the presence of a typically fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, and reliable support from Dennehy, Richard Crenna. Rolling Thunder's certainly not a bad movie - it's co-written by Paul Schrader! - and it deserves more of an audience than it's had, but the Stallone wins out in the end.
It's a long road: